Interview: Jim Carroll
With a new rock album in stores, a new book of poetry on the shelves and two novels in
the works, Jim Carroll, 49, is hitting middle age with a confident stridenot to
mention a cult-like status.
After surviving a childhood of heroin addiction and failed athletic dreams, Carroll
emerged as a young poetic prodigy, rubbing elbows with such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg
and William S. Burroughs. His most famous work, "The Basketball Diaries," may
have been penned between the ages of 12 and 16, but Carroll has published eight books of
poetry and reams of short stories since then; his first collection of poems, "Living
at the Movies," is still in print after 24 years. Carroll has also been enamored of
rock, throwing himself into the Andy Warhol-Velvet Underground, art-music scene of the
late '60s and early '70s. He eventually released three albums of his own in the early '80s
as the Jim Carroll Band, meshing his poetic talent with his love of music. Now, after
almost 15 years, Carroll has "let that rock energy back in" and is once again
Citysearch.com recently spoke with Carroll about his return to the rock arena, his
poetry and a Hollywood lawsuit.
Citysearch.com: So, who are you playing music with these days?
Jim Carroll: It's with a bunch of guys from different bands in Seattle.
CS: Like who? How did you meet?
JC: See, this record that I did last year called "Pools of Mercury"
started off really as a spoken-word album with music, but I had such a good band in New
York that...I had a couple of songs that I'd written with this guy in Seattle, Robert
Roth; he was in a band called Truly. Robert and I wrote a couple of songs and I played
them in the studio when we were doing the record and [the New York musicians] said we
should record these things. And I'd been hesitant about doing any songs, but we decided to
do it, you know, and it kind of changed the take on the album.
When I was going out to Seattle not long after that, I spoke to Robert and he said he
could get together a band [for a concert]. And I thought just to do like a couple of
songs, you know. But when I got out there, he had this band with the drummer from the
Posies, I think the bass player was Hiro [Screaming Trees], and this other guy from the
Fastbacks playing guitar. So they had basically been rehearsing that week, and all we had
time to rehearse together was at the sound check. But they had learned a whole set of
songs, like the whole "Catholic Boy" album and a few others, and plus the new
song. I read and then the band came out and did a set. It was really terrific. We hadn't
rehearsed or anything and it all came off without any mistakes. They sounded great. At any
rate, Robert will be playing with us [in Portland]. But I don't know if it will be the
exact same band as last time.
CS: What made you decide to get back into music?
JC: Well, I didn't really decide to do it. When we were in the studio doing
["Pools of Mercury"], it was just kind of a fluke. When I had the guys in the
studio I just happened to be playing the songs that Robert and I had done, and they just
said that we should do those over, just record them now. So we did, and once you let in
that rock-and-roll energy, it's very hard to get away from it. In fact, it kind of got me
into trouble with a lot of A&R guys at different record companies who had been asking
me every other year or so [to make another rock record]. I explained to them that it was
CS: I read that you were working on a couple of novels.
JC: Yeah, that's what I'm doing now. They're both completely fiction, in the third
person, and not autobiographical at all. It was kind of a blessing and curse...I had this
idea for this one very straight narrative novel with a hook in it, you know, that came to
me first, and I started to do all these notes on it and research it. Then two months after
that, I came up with this other idea for a novel. It was much different, though, a more
fragmented type of book from the writing standpoint, with a lot of flashbacks and stuff.
It wasn't a straight narrative, sequential book; it was more arty in a way, I guess. I
chose [to write] the more fragmented one, even though it was less commercial. My agent
wanted me to do the other one, actually, but it was just easier to work on that book.
CS: What do you think about the recent lawsuit involving the families of the
Kentucky shooting victims who are suing the filmmakers of "The Basketball
Diaries"? They're claiming that the dream sequence in the movie is what inspired the
JC: I don't think [the movie] had any causal threat to it. The kid in Kentucky,
that just happened to be the first thing he said after three days of silence, "I saw
Jim Carroll do it in the 'The Basketball Diaries.'" He was referring to the movie,
because in the scenes in the book I say that I don't want to shoot anybody. I talk about
using a machine gun, but when I was in high school, getting a machine gun in New York...I
suppose it would be possible, but not like in the culture of guns like in Kentucky. It's
that one scene. But the fact is, all that slow motion the lawyer talks abouthe
thought it glamorized it like a ballet or somethingit was a fantasy sequence, and
slow motion has always been a way filmmakers portray fantasy sequences. I don't see
how...I mean the [Kentucky] kid had real problems, you know. He could have been set off by
anything, like being turned down for a date, I don't know. I just think it's all a bunch
of bullshit, really. I think the [lawyer] is kind of reaching, like a high-profile
ambulance-chasing job. "The Basketball Diaries" has been banned from school
libraries in a lot of places for years, and this [lawsuit] just made it more so.
CS: What did you think of the movie?
JC: I'm not crazy about that film, you know. It's OK as it was. I had sold the
options for that film every year for like 13 years before it was made, and so I saw a lot
scripts for it. Some were good, a lot of them were terrible. It's a very difficult thing
to do. In the movie [the director] had to use a composite of different characters to give
[DiCaprio] his little posse. In the book, I'm moving from one situation to another, I'm
hanging around with my street friends and then with these private-school kids, you know.
There aren't too many characters who are continuous throughout the book.
[The movie] actually gave me a whole audience of kids 12 to 17 years old. It was
surprising to me because it put the book back on the Times best-seller list and my
publisher and I didn't know who was buying all these books. I thought kids would watch the
film and go see Leonardo and Mark [Wahlberg], and I never thought they'd go out and buy
the book, but they did.
CS: What do you hope to convey to an audience through reading your poetry?
JC: It's nothing that I have specifically in mind. If I read pieces from
"Forced Entries," the kind of funny parts to start off, then that's just pure
entertainment. But there's some poetry that has some value. ["Forced Entries"]
was written during a part of my life when I was changing a lot of learned trivia into
wisdom by being in the country for the first time in my life. But with poems, I like to
make the images abstract enough that people can just make them their own, you know. I mean
five different people could get five different takes on what the meaning is, and they'll
all be correct because it's how they perceive it through the heart, not just the
intellect. I don't want to pound out some message to anybody, or anything like that.
CS: So do you consider yourself a surrealist?
JC: I love surrealism, but it's a very tricky thing. To label a poem surreal, in
the sense of the surrealists, that's where everything is surreal. A surreal poem
could start off very heightened and magical, but unless you're the best the of surrealists
like Max Jacob and people like that, you can't sustain that heightened sense of
surrealism. So it can become very tiresome and mediocre; it can be a message of bad poetry
pretty often. I like to have the images grounded so you can approach it, like I say, at a
heart level as well as an intellectual level. I mean, a stream-of-consciousness surreal
poem stringing surreal images together is really just coming from the intellect, it
doesn't really affect that heart quality. There has to be more vulnerability and joy or
pathos or chaos conveyed within those images; those basic human qualities that I want to
be evoked by people.
© 1999 Portland Citysearch.com
The original interview was found here.